With Valentine’s Day a week away, love is in the air. And if you’re in a romantic relationship with a coworker or thinking about starting one, there’s plenty you can do to avoid embarrassment, hurt, and disruption for yourself and your significant other. Here are five rules of office romances.
1. Check your company’s HR policy
Many organizations have their own policies on workplace relationships. For example, some companies frown upon one romantic partner managing the other, as that could cause breaches of compliance, conflicts of interest, or inappropriate collusion. The safest option is to ask your HR department if it has a policy in place, and to let your HR advisor know if you're in a workplace relationship. And if it’s not written into HR policy, try to get a feel for your organization’s cultural view on workplace relationships. This is especially important if you're working abroad or in an organization with a different culture from your own.
2. Agree on an approach
Chances are some of your colleagues suspect that your relationship with your coworker has blossomed into a romance. In any case, you and your partner have to decide how you’ll behave at work. Do you “come clean” and let all your colleagues know what’s going on? Or do you join the 33 percent of workplace couples who try to keep their relationships a secret? Whatever you decide, it's important to discuss whether to set some boundaries at work, such as not spending too much time alone together or agreeing not to use your “pet names” for one another.
3. Stay professional at work
Your colleagues might approve of your office romance and think you’re the best-matched couple since Romeo and Juliet, but you still need to tread carefully. Indulging in in-jokes, private conversations, and public displays of affection can make your coworkers feel awkward. And if you and your partner are eating lunch together in the staff canteen, other colleagues may not know whether you want privacy or would welcome the extra company. Why not invite a few more people along? Even if they decline your invitation, you have made the offer. If you discuss business matters together—or, worse still, make business decisions—while your coworkers are absent, it will likely cause resentment. If you’re managing your partner, you need to be especially mindful of your professional interactions, and be extra careful to treat your other team members equally and fairly.
4. Prepare for gossip
Human beings are social animals, and connect with one another by sharing stories and experiences. And the more exciting or shocking those stories, the more engaging they become. So, even if you rigorously follow the rules and are careful with your actions, some people may be quick to make assumptions and to see favoritism or nepotism that’s just not there. It’s a kind of fake news.
5. Plan for the worst
What if the relationship ends? You have to remain professional if your workplace relationship comes to an end, no matter what the reason. This can be a difficult time for you, your ex-partner, and your colleagues, especially if you still have to work closely together. An acrimonious split can poison the atmosphere in the workplace, and impact productivity and morale. If you manage your ex-partner, make sure you don’t discriminate against them, or else you and your organization risk being the subject of a grievance procedure. Don’t get involved in “muck-raking” or “washing your dirty linen in public,” even if your former partner does.
Angela Civitella is a former executive, certified business leadership coach, and founder of Intinde.
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